I think packaging is bad. Buying products in bulk using reusable containers (cloth or glass, ideally) is much better. Recyclable packaging is better than non-recyclable, but not as good as no packaging at all, and not really OK. When I can’t avoid buying a package, I feel guilty. When my husband doesn’t avoid buying a package, I feel angry.
I’m not unusual in any of this. Plenty of environmentalists think and feel as I do.
But are we right?
I don’t doubt that packaging carries an environmental cost. Most things do, after all, and many resource conservation efforts are organizing around reducing packaging, packaging waste, and litter (much of which is discarded packaging). I don’t doubt the rightness of such efforts.
But consider proportion and context.
Too many environmentalist life-style changes are the equivalent of picking up pennies from the sidewalk—sure, go ahead and do it, but don’t expect much from the exercise. Yes, pennies add up to dollars and dollars add up to wealth, but anybody who expects to earn a living by picking up dropped pennies is deluding themselves. Anyone who expects to save the planet one teeny-tiny bit at a time is similarly delusional. Some things just aren’t worth irritating one’s husband over—other things very much are.
In which category does packaging fall?
To ask about the importance of packaging, though, it’s necessary to rephrase the question. For one thing, “packaging” is not just one thing but a whole flock of products made of differing materials, for differing reasons, and by differing production methods. It took me a whole extra week to figure out how to ask my question so as to be able to find an answer—the key is to look at the substance, not the product at all.
What are the carbon footprints and environmental impacts of small amounts (a pound, say) of the various materials commonly used in packaging? How do these footprints compare with other aspects of a household carbon footprint, such as burning a gallon of gas?
Plastics are a group of substances. I discussed them in a previous post, and the important thing to remember is that what is true of one plastic is not necessarily true of another. Some are a recyclable, some are not. Most cannot biodegrade, but some can, at least under very specific circumstances. Most plastics are made from petroleum, but some are not. Perhaps surprisingly, whether a plastic is made from plants has nothing to do with whether it’s biodegradable; what matters is the chemistry of the product, and the same polymers can be assembled from multiple kinds of oil.
I have not attempted to look up the environmental impact of every single kind of plastic there is, nor have I tried to look up all the kinds regularly used in packaging. Instead, I used search terms such as “the carbon footprint of plastic,” and came up with a few specifics and some generalities that should be roughly applicable to most, if not all plastics.
The important thing to remember is plastics generate questions that have no simple answers. More on that shortly.
The Carbon Footprint of Plastics
According to one study, in 2015 the greenhouse gas emissions from all plastics worldwide, from cradle to grave and including transportation, was almost 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Not all of that plastic is packaging, and while it’s a good guess that much of it is, I’m not really sure. The article didn’t say. The article also didn’t put that number in perspective–is 1.8 billion a big chunk of total emissions, or a small one? You’d think it would be easy, in the information age, to just look up humanity’s carbon footprint for a given year, especially since it’s easy to find out how much emissions grow or shrink from year to year, or how the footprint of one country compares to that of another. But nope, that information is buried somewhere.
It’s another example of the societal innumeracy I was talking about last week.
But the authors of the article seemed to think 1.8 billion is cause for concern and that plastics are an area that deserves specific attention in the fight against climate change.
Another source looks at plastic bottles and helpfully explains the following:
The manufacture of one pound of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic can produce up to three pounds of carbon dioxide. Processing plastic resins and transporting plastic bottles contribute to a bottle’s carbon footprint in a major way. Estimates show that one 500-milliliter plastic bottle of water has a total carbon footprint equal to 82.8 grams of carbon dioxide.
Again, that’s hard to put in perspective, but since a gallon of gasoline burned produces 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, and one gram is 0.00220462 of a pound, it seems about 109 plastic bottles equal one gallon of gas, footprint-wise. 109 bottles is about a two-week supply for someone who drinks mostly bottled water or soda.
So, yeah, if you drive to the store for a load of groceries, the carbon footprint of your drive will likely be higher than the footprint of the plastic packaging, but it might be close. And if you bike to go shopping in order to reduce your emissions, as I do, cutting back on plastic packaging seems a quite reasonable next step.
There is always a but, and the but of avoiding plastic is that the alternative is sometimes worse. It’s hard to be sure, first because the analysis has to include many factors, and in part because sources of information often have their own motives.
For example, the Coca-Cola Bottling Company (which sells both plastic and glass bottles as well as aluminum cans) reports that glass bottles have been gaining market share against plastic lately, but cautions that glass is not always superior environmentally. Their argument is that it takes less energy to make a plastic bottle than a glass one, and that as long as both are recycled, the problem of plastic in the environment is irrelevant. We’ll get back to the issue of recycling, but Coca-Cola’s analysis may be correct as far as it goes. And if it does take less energy to make a plastic bottle, it probably takes less money, too–so the company has a financial incentive to reposition plastic as a low-carbon option, whether or not it is one.
Financial incentive is not proof of nefariousness, but it’s reason to be suspicious. It’s reason to ask how the carbon footprint of plastic compares to glass after manufacture, in transportation and disposal and so forth–notice the article didn’t say.
But there is food for thought out there. For example, plastic packaging on vegetables–which I’ve always viewed as pointless–turns out to increase the shelf-life of such vegetables and thus increase the chance that they will sell. Food waste has a huge carbon footprint, and while vegetables spoiling on grocer’s shelves represent only a fraction of that waste, the thin film of plastic on a cucumber is only a very tiny amount of packaging. I lean towards rejecting the plastic wrap anyway, but without the certainty I used to have.
Then, too, plastic is much lighter than glass, lighter than aluminum, and often slightly lighter than cardboard, meaning that plastic packaging requires less energy to transport than packaging made from its competitors does. Less energy means lower carbon footprint. Again, certainty lessens.
And there are other applications where plastic definitely has a much lower footprint than its alternatives, and customer resistance to plastic is actually a barrier to a company lowering its footprint. As ever, knee-jerk reactions prove counter-productive. There is no alternative to learning and thinking.
But, But, But….
Carbon emissions are not the only form of environmental impact around, and plastic pollution is now a major problem. All other packaging materials, if dropped in the ocean, either biodegrade or eventually turn into sand of one kind or another. Only plastic stays plastic forever.
In some cases, it might be necessary to pick one’s poison.
Cardboard and Paper
Corrugated cardboard has a footprint in carbon dioxide equivalent about equal to half it’s own weight. That is, if you’re looking at a pound of cardboard, you’re also looking at half a pound of carbon dioxide equivalent. So, 40 pounds of cardboard equals a gallon of gas–given that you need a lot of cardboard to get 40 pounds, we’re getting into penny-territory here, something that matters a lot in aggregate but not so much otherwise.
There are other kinds of cardboard and other paper products used in packaging, and except for those laminated with plastic or foil, most are likely similarly low-carbon.
It’s worth noting that most cardboard packaging is removed before products hit the shelves; almost everything–including items sold in bulk, naked on shelves–arrives at stores in big cardboard boxes. I’ve worked in grocery stores, and breaking down boxes for disposal is a common activity. Hopefully, they are recycled. I was never quite clear on whether ours were–they did go into a different compactor from the rest of the store’s trash. But the point is that there is a lot more cardboard associated with your groceries than you can see. But because consumers have no direct contact with this cardboard, it doesn’t fall under the heading of consumer lifestyle choice. If reducing cardboard use is a worthy goal (and it might not be, since complications abound), we need to lean on suppliers to meet that goal, rather than attempting to meet it ourselves.
According to one source, glass that has not been recycled has a carbon footprint 8.4 times its own weight. Recycled glass has a footprint 1.4 times its own weight. So how much of the glass we buy is recycled and how much is not? I don’t know–it’s most likely a mix.
A glass bottle weighs, on average, eight ounces, so two bottles per pound. I don’t know how big an average glass bottle is, but let’s say that you’re buying both beer and wine in variously-sized glass bottles, and so your personal average bottle weight happens to also land on eight ounces per. So if you buy 28 bottles, you’ll have about 14 pounds of bottle glass. If those bottles are made from all-recycled glass, that’s 20 pounds of associated carbon dioxide equivalent, the same amount you’d get from burning that gallon of gas.
If those bottles are made entirely of never-recycled glass, you’ve got 117.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent on your hands.
Like I said, it’s probably a mix.
Metal, in packaging, is almost exclusively aluminum nowadays. I spent the better part of an hour fighting with figures provided by one source on aluminum before I discovered the document’s decimal points had gone screwy–a good example of why looking up this type of information can be tricky (another reason is that different assessments may go by different rules and turn up numbers that shouldn’t be compared). On a different source, I found recycled aluminum listed as having a carbon footprint twice its own weight (one pound of aluminum represents two pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent) and unrecycled aluminum listed as having a footprint 12 times its own weight.The big difference reflects the fact that mining and processing aluminum ore (bauxite) requires a huge amount of energy–bauxite mining is reportedly terrible in other respects, too.
In practice, aluminum products like cans are likely a mix of recycled and new metal. Since I don’t know what the mix is, I don’t know what the footprint of an aluminum can or an aluminum foil wrapper might be. If the mix is 50/50 (as implied but not stated by the source with the screwy decimals which I’m not going to site) the footprint should be seven times the weight of the metal. That’s a start.
So, if one pound of aluminum corresponds to seven pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, how many aluminum cans make up a pound? Answer: 31 cans. Sometimes information is easy to find, for a change.
That means roughly 93 aluminum cans, or 15 six-packs and three singles, have a carbon footprint equal to burning a gallon of gas if my guess about the recycled content is right.
So, What Do I Buy?
I did find one source that list various types of drinks container in order from best to worse for the environment. The same source also lists carbon footprints for each, but you’ll notice I’ve done this post the hard way by looking up each material in a different source–believe it or not that wasn’t an oversight. I wanted to be able to see if discrepancies emerged between the various sources. It was a form of quick-and-dirty fact-check, and that is how I noticed there was a problem with the source with the wacky decimal places.
I can’t directly check my numbers against this last helpful source, though, partly because it lists carbon footprints per bottle whereas my numbers are by the pound, and partly because it gives low, medium, and high estimates and they diverge wildly (the high estimate for single-use plastic is over ten times the low estimate). This raises the question–are my numbers the result of high, low, or medium estimates?
This last article does a good job of covering both carbon footprints under various scenarios and other environmental impacts, such as pollution. I recommend reading it.
An important take-away is that the environmental impact of various types of packaging depends in part on where you live because recycling options, reuse options, and the energy grid itself all vary. That’s why I’m not reproducing their best-to-worst list (sorry); every entry except “no container” has the caveat, “depending on country.”
So, Does Packaging Matter?
Short answer? Yes, but probably not as much as I thought it did.
In general, for a large shopping trip with most items packaged in something or other, packaging may add the equivalent of a gallon or so of gas to the trip. That’s not nothing, but it’s likely a relatively small part of the household footprint.
Which type of packaging is better is a difficult call, especially since plastic has a low footprint but a terrible environmental impact for other reasons (plastic is almost never closed-loop recycled, either; recycled plastic still ends up in a landfill or the ocean, it just takes a detour through being a carpet or something on the way). There are other complications, too. For example, glass seems like a great option because it can be sterilized and reused, but it almost never is. Individual companies can vary a lot, too. For example, the Cliff Bar company is carbon neutral and is a leader in sustainable industry, so while its wrappers clutter up our house and drive my husband to distraction (I forget to throw them out), they might not count towards our footprint the same way an apparently similar wrapper from a less-enlightened company would.
Practically speaking, there are two choices for a household wishing to reduce its packaging-related footprint: research each product and its packaging individually; or consider all packaging to be roughly equivalent and minimize its total weight.
The latter approach, while definitely quick and dirty, should lead to impact reduction in most cases and has the advantage of being doable.
- First, reduce total weight of packaging so far as can be done without making yourself crazy or alienating your spouse.
- Where possible, choose recyclable options over those that are not recyclable.
- Where possible, choose glass over even recyclable plastic.
- Where possible, support environmentally and socially responsible companies, not those that aren’t.
And don’t forget to vote for climate hawks, because that’s really where we’re going to win this thing, not in arguments over cracker boxes.